Translating masses of Steinhoff docs from English slows German criminal probe

Cape Town - German authorities are struggling to analyse a wealth of financial documents seized from a Steinhoff subsidiary in late 2015 as the documents are written in English. 

A spokesperson for the public prosecutor's office of Oldenburg told Fin24 by email on Saturday that its criminal probe was set to expand, despite delays caused by translating documents from English. 

As Fin24 first reported in December, German authorities are investigating “four current and former managers of a group” for possible accounting fraud.

The employees have not been named. German police have also not specifically named Steinhoff as the company under investigation, referring only to a conglomerate that owns a furniture retailer in the German town of Westerstede.

Westerstede is the German headquarters of the Steinhoff subsidiary Steinhoff Europe Group Services, or SEGS. In 2015 late 2015, ahead of its listing on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Steinhoff confirmed that police had searched the Westerstede offices of SEGS

Multiple reports in the German media have named Steinhoff as the company referred to in the probe, while Steinhoff has acknowledged it is under investigation in a “criminal and tax investigation in Germany”. 

Nicole Nadermann, spokeswoman for the Oldenburg prosecutors office, said the findings of an initial analysis of the seized documents showed the need for further investigations. 

“The investigation has been complicated by the fact that the documents are to a large extent written in the English,” she said. Police previously told Fin24 that the balance sheet of the company it is investigating may have been inflated.

Steinhoff’s share price has plunged by over 95% since its board announced on December 5 that its CEO Markus Jooste was stepping down “with immediate effect” amid an accounting scandal.

Annual General Meeting 

Steinhoff did not refer to the German criminal probe during feedback sessions at its Annual General Meeting held in the Netherlands on Friday afternoon.  

It did, however, provide partial updates on a number of other legal matters, including litigation by vendors and shareholders against the company in the wake of its share price plunge. It also said that it had met four times with officials from SA’s priority crime investigation unit the Hawks over the complaint it lodged against Jooste. 

Steinhoff leadership provided an update on the status of an independent forensic audit of its books being undertaken by PwC.

The initial findings from the PwC investigation indicate a “pattern of transactions undertaken over a number of years across a variety of assets classes that led to the material overstatement of income and asset values of the group”. 

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